On June 20, one day after the Post & Courier published my op-ed, the Mayor’s office issued a press release disputing factual statements I’d made. This press release contains several erroneous statements, some of which were contradicted by the Mayor during the June 20 council meeting. This document is still on the city website–it was included in a newsletter the city circulated the following week.
I sent the Post & Courier a response to this press release and the mayor’s comments at the June 20 council meeting, but the editor said the P & C “can’t use another op-ed on this subject” and suggested I send a shorter letter to the editor. My letter was published today; here is the longer version.
“Paying Twice” For A Racial Bias Audit That Council Won’t Vote On
Statistics on police stops show African Americans in Charleston are twice as likely to be stopped as whites. This data, along with many individuals’ stories of unfair treatment, led the Charleston Area Justice Ministry (CAJM) and other citizens to seek an independent audit of policing practices. May 23 at City Council, CAJM members shared more stories and argued that Novak, the firm chosen to do an audit, lacks experience analyzing racial bias. In June, Councilmember James Lewis proposed that Council approve a new RFP (Request for Proposals) for a racial bias audit, then solicit bids from other firms.
Mayor Tecklenburg expressed numerous positions on the audit:
- Novak’s qualified to do a racial bias police audit. (January-May 2017)
- Novak should find another firm to do a racial bias audit, giving the city several to choose from. (Opposition to Lewis proposal, 6.15 Public Safety Committee)
- Citizens’ calls for an audit “insulted” Charleston police. (6.20 Council meeting speech before vote on Lewis proposal)
- “Anyone” could participate in helping define the audit’s scope. (6.20, end of speech)
- “It’s not really necessary, in my view” for the full Council to approve audit’s scope or select a firm. (6.20, after Lewis proposal defeated)
Consistent in all these positions is the Mayor’s dislike of CAJM. On June 20, before the evening’s Council meeting, his staff released a “Fact Sheet” (posted under “Press Release Archive”) challenging statements in my 6.19 op-ed and a CAJM press conference supporting the Lewis proposal. The release allegedly “contrasts these claims with facts,” but many of its “Facts” conflict with provided “Sources” and/or the Mayor’s statements later that evening.
–Disputing my phrase “repeated allegations of racial bias,” the press release says the City’s Open Data Project website shows “no citizen complaints of racial bias against the police department” since January 2015. This site, however, contains no pre-2017 information. During his June 20 speech, the Mayor said 17 citizens complained in 2015, 15 in 2016, and one in 2017.
“Repeated allegations”–stories of police stops, statistics on their racial disparity—were reported in CAJM research meetings, to elected officials, at CAJM’s Nehemiah Assembly with 2000 people, and during Council’s Citizen Participation periods. On May 23, three councilmembers told their own stories; one asked, “How often has that happened to you, Mayor?”
All complaints, including those filed pre-2015, should be accounted for in an audit.
–The press release defends the wording in the city’s RFP and Novak’s response, suggesting I shouldn’t call the RFP’s language “vague.” Call it what you will; the words “race” and “racism” weren’t in the RFP, nor was the term “racial bias” in Novak’s proposal. The “Fact Sheet” quotes a single sentence by Novak containing both “bias” and “racial.” In context of the proposal, however, Novak is saying the races of people stopped by police are “superficial macro indicators. . . We have successfully worked with other agencies to move beyond this metric.”
–Disputing my assertion that the committee selecting Novak was “headed by the police chief,” the press release says Gary Cooper and his “point person,” Susan Poteat, were in charge, offering an email and timeline as proof. But the email doesn’t identify a committee head; their list of meeting attendees shows Mullen attending all meetings, Cooper attending none. On May 23, two councilmembers referred to Mullen being in charge, and the Mayor said the city “had Chief Mullen and members of our finance department kind of heading up” the project.
–Challenging my report (“claim”) that on May 23, multiple councilmembers stated they hadn’t realized Novak was auditing for racial bias, the press release presents the RFP–the one referring to race euphemistically–and Novak’s proposal–the one without the term “racial bias,” entitled “Performance Assessment: Follow-Up Information—Policing Data Analytics.” It’s on page 135 of a 382-page Ways and Means agenda. Councilmember Waring rightly called the racial bias component of the audit “buried in the proposal.”
–The press release also argues that city procurement policy was followed when Novak was chosen without a councilmember on the selection committee. It claims the city’s policy “makes clear” that Novak’s was “a standard city contract, not a state-licensed, professional services contract requiring the appointment of a Councilmember to the selection committee.” But in the “Source” provided, no other category of service listed—design/build services, construction, etc.–could correspond to Novak’s consulting, which will cost $250,000 for one year. What that document “makes clear” is that when professional services exceed $50,000, a Councilmember must be on the committee.
The Mayor announced city procurement policy was unclear, after Councilmember Waring recounted “inconsistency in our RFP processes” that “caused consternation” three times during the Mayor’s 18-month administration. The winning bid for the West Ashley revitalization plan was $150,000 over budget, but Councilmembers opposing it were outnumbered by the Mayor’s staff, Waring said. Choosing Novak to “assess the performance and best practice of every department in the city” without “any minorities involved in that process, that’s not transparent, Mr. Mayor. . . and I’ve told you that, so this is nothing new.” Further, it’s “not the Chief’s fault” that when Novak was chosen, there were “no minorities around the table.” Waring added, “if that’s the process . . . all citizens need to know that’s the way we’re gonna be doing business.” In response, the Mayor–tacitly walking back that day’s press release–said the policy needed work and asked Waring to chair a committee to review it.
Questions not answered in the Mayor’s press release or Council remarks:
–If Novak was formerly a good choice to do a racial bias audit, why not now? And if they’re not qualified, why pay them, or anyone else, to subcontract? Councilmember Waring noted the city could find its own firm, whereas hiring Novak–to identify firms we’d then approve, and to supervise work in which Novak lacks expertise–would be “paying twice.”
–Why oppose Councilmember Lewis’s proposal to create a detailed RFP appropriate for Charleston? Why not require Council’s full approval?
–Why bother disparaging CAJM and others seeking an independent audit? During his 35-minute speech, the Mayor scolded these citizens from his lectern, calling their efforts “insulting” and “improper,” saying they should have “embraced” the police department’s Illumination Project. Yet the existence of the Project, worthy as it is, doesn’t account for past practices. The Mayor complained of “bullying,” calling CAJM meeting protocols “disrespectful,” because “it was clear they didn’t trust me, I don’t know what I did to deserve that.” He said he’d told CAJM he disliked “the way I’d been treated.” But the Mayor’s personal feelings, like CAJM’s tactics, weren’t the issue before Council. Some might use “disrespectful” or “improper” to describe the Mayor’s tactic of turning away from Council, towards the audience, and speaking 35 minutes before allowing discussion to begin. The Mayor could have shown respectfulness and professionalism by offering a specific amendment to the Lewis proposal. He could have addressed the racial disparity in police stops cited in the proposal. Instead he insisted, his voice rising, that there’s no “intentional racial bias” on the police force, although this is unproven. Moreover, intentions are less important than actions.
Now the Mayor’s gotten what he wanted: the Lewis resolution failed, the Mayor will tell Novak to recommend and supervise another firm (“paying twice”), and Council has no clear procedure for defining the scope of the audit. “I really thought a compromise today would be to have a fair, transparent RFP,” Waring said. “But the political process around this table didn’t allow it. Politics won tonight. Not fair and openness. Not inclusion. Not unity. Not Charleston strong.”
Contemplating the Mayor’s efforts to denigrate citizens calling for a comprehensive, independent audit, I recall something Barack Obama said at Clementa Pinckney’s funeral, about how easy it is to “slip into old habits whereby those who disagree with us are not merely wrong but bad. Where we barricade ourselves behind preconceived notions.” Our Mayor read these words aloud at Council June 20, then continued doing what the President lamented. The misleading “Fact Sheet” is still circulating in city newsletters, reinforcing “preconceived notions” about CAJM. Apparently, discrediting CAJM–and all other citizens who seek an audit–is more important than carefully examining police practices that have continued our city’s long history of racism.